Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Summer reading list takes shape

REBECCA KNEALE GOULD

One of the great ironies of my profession is the pervasive feeling that I never have time to read. Truly. Of course, I am always reading, but the reading often has a utilitarian tagline attached: reading-for-class, reading-for-future-classes, reading-to-check-out-that-footnote, reading-to-stay-up-to-date-in-my-field and then, of course, at the end of every semester, there is reading Student Writing. Each of these tasks — yes, even that last one — has its distinct pleasures and benefits. 

Only one of them (you can guess which) also occasionally causes paroxysms of pain, usually inflicted by such unfortunate expressions as “based off of” and “centered around.” Don’t get me wrong, having a profession that requires one to read is a delicious privilege and one that I never take for granted. Nevertheless, when June finally arrives, so does a new season, roughly eight weeks after the arrival of the spring peepers and the redwing blackbirds: The Season of Just Reading.

To be honest, it’s hard for me ever to fully let those utilitarian threads go. A friend pointed out once (and it wasn’t a compliment): “You don’t seem to read fiction.” She was right. It’s not that I don’t want to read fiction, but fiction rarely rises to the top of my list. First of all, why read fiction when the actual, real world is so utterly incomprehensible and endlessly fascinating? There is also the unavoidable internalization of academic culture. After a lifetime of marinating in the scholarly world, it can feel a bit like an occupational hazard to read things that “might not be useful.” But then there’s poetry. Not useful. And absolutely essential. In sum?

Yes, to non-fiction, yes to poetry and yes please to fiction if we could only have two Augusts and the perfect beach.

What is almost as good as summer reading is conversing with your friends about what to read. So, what am I reading right now? There’s some Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on my bedside table, reminding me to stay attuned to “the Radical Amazement” that we can find in everyday things, if only we open our eyes to the world around us (something Rachel Carson also advised). In the same stack of books is a monograph about feminism in the nineteenth century, with an emphasis on the legacy of the great, insufficiently heralded, Transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller. (Yes, potentially “useful,” but also just plain fun.) 

And then there’s a book by an author I hadn’t heard of until recently: “Who Do We Choose to Be?” by the educator and leadership consultant, Margaret J. Wheatley. From the outset, Wheatley makes clear that her assumed audience consists of people not unlike her former self: tireless activists who desperately want to “make the world a better place” — more peaceful, more socially just, more environmentally healthy and resilient. She applauds our work, pauses and then tells us to our faces: the global transformation that you’re working for is Just Not Going to Happen.

Relying simultaneously on scientific research into the workings of living natural systems and on gripping historical studies of civilization collapse, Wheatley acknowledges that we know what solutions could be implemented to address poverty, violence, racism, dehumanization and climate change at a global level. The problem, she avers, lies not in our lack of solutions, but in the continual absence of “the conditions to implement them.” These conditions include: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries and compassion for others, the kind of compassion that can overcome the pervasive forces of self-interest and greed. These conditions, she writes, are simply “unavailable” at this time on the brink of collapse.

As I made my first foray into the enticing Season of Summer Reading, this was not the news I wanted to hear. My first response: “Could I at least bargain for national transformation instead?” “Nope” says Wheatley (a bit less succinctly, but no less bluntly). My second response: “I wonder what’s new in fiction for Summer 2022?” (Wheatley agrees that humor is essential.) My third response: “You may not like the news, honey, but open your mind and tackle that next chapter.” A few pages later, Wheatley seems to have been reading my mind: “I urge you to let go of the comfort of a quick response,” she advises, and invites me, like the good Buddhist that she is, to dwell with “the profound discomfort that arises from difficult information.”

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m taking the advice that I often give to my students: not to make up our minds too quickly about what we think the author is saying, nor to harden our hearts to arguments that we might not initially “like.” For the truth of the matter is that when I follow Wheatley’s arguments step by logical step, I can only conclude that she has a point, indeed, quite a few of them. Chapter by chapter, Wheatley offers a carefully reasoned assessment of the present state of affairs and our current position in the last stages of civilization decline, a recognizable stage experienced by multiple civilizations dating back to 3000 BCE. 

Knowing how grim her message is, Wheatley carefully lays out her book with plenty of blank space, beautiful photographs and, yes, poetry, giving us intentional room to breathe, to pause and to ponder the reality that she names. Like the prophets of old, she tells it like it is, but transports us into other possibilities. Throughout her book, Wheatley warns against the “ambush of hope,” by which she means those moments when authors conclude their stark assessments of global failure with several pages of forced sunny optimism that “contradict their own arguments.” 

Nevertheless, Wheatley’s book is ultimately powerful and motivating, taking her readers to a place beyond both false hope and paralyzing fear. While it would take another column altogether to illuminate how Wheatley accomplishes this work, her central call is for each of us to take up the mantle of leadership and create “islands of sanity” in our own communities. We don’t have to be CEOs or board presidents to do this work; a leader is anyone willing to step up and be engaged. We can be leaders of families and small groups, creating islands of sanity in our classrooms, our sanctuaries, our living rooms and our neighborhood parks. 

Rather than try to “change the world,” Wheatley tells us, our task is to change ourselves. To be clear, Wheatley is not asking us to give up activism per se (if activism is our “thing”), but she is asking each of us to face the reality of what can and cannot be done, to discern our particular strengths and capacities and to use our hearts, minds and energy “to meaningfully serve as things fall apart.” Her faith in our ability to create islands of sanity is neither idealistic nor abstract, but is grounded in her decades of work in communities that have experienced exile and collapse: in India, Croatia and South Africa.

Am I arguing with Wheatley even as I read her? You bet. It’s June and I finally have the time to do it. And what’s next on my list? Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s “To Speak for the Trees.” Why? Dr. Beresford-Kroeger weaves a tale of trees that is rooted in both biochemistry and the ancient Celtic wisdom of the ancestors who raised her. She argues for a “bioplan” of Global Forest Revival that is as simple as one person planting one native tree a year for six years to stave off the current effects of the climate crisis. Diana is an “island of sanity” unto herself and she calls us to join her.

That’s the start of my summer reading list. What’s on yours?

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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